Whether it’s raising your own chickens or preserving strawberry jam, the University of California Cooperative Extension likely has a program for it. Such programs are widespread in the Mother Lode and have helped foster a culture in which many people eat home-grown and home-preserved foods.
The extension can best be described as a huge network of university researchers and science educators who partner with area residents to promote healthy communities, food systems and environments.
In our area, the Central Sierra Cooperative Extension serves Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne and El Dorado counties. Programs include but are not limited to 4-H Youth Development, the California Naturalist, Master Food Preservers and Master Gardeners.
The 4-H Youth Development Program encourages young people to reach their full potential as competent, confident and ethical leaders who become active members of their communities. Children, teens, families and adults can participate in a variety of fun educational activities that interest them such as animal care, arts and crafts, community service, leadership and more.
If you’ve ever been to a county fair, you’ve no doubt seen the dozens of shining, young faces dressed in white with the signature green scarves and 4-H caps caring for livestock or poultry they have raised themselves with guidance from their group leaders and families. Joining a 4-H club also provides young people with opportunities to make new friends, practice public speaking, learn record-keeping skills and participate in 4-H camp and field trips.
The California Naturalist is a relatively new program for adults. Its primary goal is to promote responsible stewardship of our natural environment. Many other states have similar programs but this is the first statewide one in California. The program gives private citizens the opportunity to help protect and preserve our unique and diverse wildlife, habitats and waterways.
Volunteers become certified by enrolling in a 40-hour course that combines both classroom and field experience in one of four areas: program support, interpretation/education, restoration/conservation and citizen science. Once certified, volunteers can work with various federal, state, local and nonprofit agencies by identifying plants, collecting data, stream sampling, invasive species monitoring, seed collection, native plant propagation and more. If a weekend hike or participating in a bird count is your idea of good fun, the California Naturalist program is for you.
The extension Master Food Preserver Program began in 1983 as a way to provide the public with up-to-date food preservation information and techniques. Many backyard foothill gardeners raise their own produce, but putting tomatoes up to enjoy in the winter months can seem daunting if not downright dangerous.
Enter the Master Food Preserver volunteers, who answer telephone and email questions, write articles for the press, staff information booths and give food preservation demonstrations at county fairs and other local events. They also teach classes on various food topics from jam making to meat preservation to dehydrating foods. As with other extension programs, Master Food Preservers participate in extensive training to become certified. Monthly classes for the public taught by these certified volunteers now alternate between San Andreas and Jackson. Master Food Preservers are also available to test pressure canners as a free public service, something that should be done annually for safe canning results.
Extension Master Gardeners are members of the community who have completed 50 hours of formal classroom training under the direction of the University of California Cooperative Extension.
Master Gardeners help provide practical, science-based information to home gardeners and are available to answer questions via telephone help lines and at free public classes held throughout the year. They also write articles for the press addressing local issues and remind us when it’s time to spray, prune or plant.
Look for Master Gardeners at county fairs, home and garden shows, farmers markets, Earth Day events, agriculture days, partnering in school gardens and more. Both the Calaveras and Tuolumne groups maintain demonstration gardens open to the public several weekends a year for visitors to gain hands-on knowledge about planting, maintenance and best practices for their own home gardens and landscape.
The Master Gardeners also hold plant sales on weekends in March, allowing the public to purchase vegetable plants, natives and others most suited to foothills gardens at a nominal cost. Children and families are always welcome, too.